“Caesar had his Brutus, Jesus Christ had Judas Iscariot…and Illinois has Len Small. And if the Judas of Illinois had the courage of the Judas of Jesus, he would return the 30 pieces of silver, get a rope and hang himself, and remove the withering blight which will remain on his state as long as he was governor of Illinois.”
So said state Rep. J. Bert Miller of Lennington Small, who was governor of Illinois from 1921 to 1929. During the Roaring ’20s, Chicago bootleggers were dispensing graft to every politician who would take it -- and Small took all he could get.
According to the unflattering biography Len Small: Governors and Gangsters, by Jim Ridings, “Len Small sold thousands of pardons and paroles as governor, including pardons to gangsters, murderers, white slavers and even cop killers. Some were sold by Len Small and his emissaries to AL CAPONE and to other mobsters.”
Small grew up in Kankakee, where was a banker and a farmer. He served two years in the state senate, and two terms as treasurer -- which gave him his first opportunity to profit from public office. Early in his governorship, Small was indicted on charges of embezzling more than $1 million while he was treasurer, making him the first Illinois governor arrested while in office -- and the last, until Rod Blagojevich. After his acquittal, Small showed his appreciation to the jurors by giving eight of them state jobs.
Prosecutors tried to investigate allegations of jury tampering. Two mobsters were imprisoned for contempt of court for refusing to testify to a grand jury; Small pardoned both. He also blocked a civil suit to recover the embezzled money by vetoing the $75,000 state appropriation to try the case. Nonetheless, the attorney general won a $1 million judgment against Small. He settled for $650,000, which he paid from a “defense fund” funded by kickbacks from state employees who had received patronage jobs from his administration.
At Kankakee’s Eastern Illinois Hospital for the Insane, wrote Ridings, “no one applied for a job…without a letter from Len Small. No one got a job there without approval of Small’s political organization, based on party loyalty. And no one kept a job there without kicking back part of their salary to Len Small.”
Small was re-elected in 1924, with the support of the Ku Klux Klan -- which he allowed to rally on the state fairgrounds -- but the opposition of the Chicago Tribune, which editorialized the Small was “the worst governor the state ever had. We believe he is the worst governor any state ever had.”
Small received more favorable press from his hometown newspaper, the Kankakee Daily Republican. That’s because he owned it. Small’s name lives on in the Small Newspaper Group, a nationwide chain of daily newspapers.
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